Accusations of fraud – both real and researcher fraud – target high-profile Danish glossy neuroscientist Milena Penkowa from the University of Copenhagen. It has been frontpage news in Denmark for some time now. Want an English introduction to the case as it stood in the beginning of January 2011 then read the Nature News article Nature News. Since then the case has grown. Now the central damaging allegation is that she falsified documents stating that a Spanish company was involved in an experiment with many hundreds of rats.
I have tried to aggregate the different sources on the Danish Wikipedia page about Milena Penkowa. I have not yet managed to assemble all the material. During the writing I stumbled on some “loose ends” and subjective thoughts about the case (I must warn you though. I have a conflict of interest: I am from the Technical University of Denmark – a competing university in Copenhagen. I also know some of the professors that just before yule sent a letter with a request for an investigation):
- An element of the Milena Penkowa case cannot be discussed in public because of “legalities”. Journalists and researchers generally know the details of that case but are prohibited from mentioning them in public. Information seekers that want to find out about it may either need to seek a person in-the-know or do a bit of triangulation with an Internet search enginge. Hmmm… Aren’t the Danish variation of free speech, The Ytringsfrihed, having a problem here?
- Some have questioned her overall scientific contribution. If you pubmed Penkowa you’ll see she has first-authored 33 PubMed papers and the total listing counts 98 PubMed papers. Most of her research seems to revolve around the protein metallothionein. The blog entry from Morten Garly Andersen states that “Penkowas first big article, which came in 2000 in the scientific magazine Glia has her coauthor, the Spanish Professor Juan Hildalgo, now retracted.” That statement seems not to be true: “Strongly compromised inflammatory response to brain injury in interleukin-6-deficient mice” is from 1999 and is with 114 citation her most cited article on Google Scolar. As far as I know this has not been retracted. As far as I can determine her Google Scholar h-index is 32. That is quite much compared to her young age. Quite impressive I would say. On the other hand among her first authored papers I find no journal I can recognize as a high-impact journal. From a medical researcher one would have expected at least one article in, e.g., The Journal of Neuroscience. So we may not be talking about ground-breaking science. She has two patents, but I am not presently aware of any application of these patents. Correction 22 August 2011: Here I am definitely wrong: She has an article in Journal of Neuroscience called CNS wound healing is severely depressed in metallothionein I- and II-deficient mice!
- Penkowa has claimed that she was under contractual obligations with a company. But can a researcher sign such a contract without the university approving it? Has the university approved such a contract? Has the university investigated whether such a contract exists?
- One commentator noted that Helge Sander exited as Minister of Science one month prior to Penkowa’s suspension from the university. Is that a coincidence?
- In the begining of January Chairman of the Board of the University of Copenhagen found that “Penkowa’s research is already being treated by the relevant authority, The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD)”. I presume he no longer will accept his own statement as the university has involved the police in the investigation?
- The university has reported Penkowa for falsifying documents. Even if the allegation is correct it is probably the case that the police cannot do anything about it because too many years have passed. The alleged falsification have supposedly taken place back in 2003. A document falsification allegation case that expired has recently happened for a Danish businessman with a high-profile politician wife. In that case the Danish police simply rejected the case.
- Fraud? What fraud? The university has reported Penkowa to the police for fraud (real fraud – not science fraud). But to commit fraud you need to gain value from it. If the allegation is correct what she gained is not clear. One “gain” was to avoid being dragged through a scientific dishonesty process, but is that a “gain” in the sense of that paragraph of the law? Has the university lost any money on that? It is probably not the case that she gained her degree based on the documents – she simply left out the problematic study from the disertation. So fraud? What fraud?
- Her collaborator fra Barcelona has said little. Penkowa has two papers in Glia from 2000: Impaired inflammatory response and increased oxidative stress and neurodegeneration after brain injury in interleukin-6-deficient mice and Metallothionein I+II expression and their role in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (as far as I can see the contested table is Table 1 with 784 rats. The method section reads “Female Lewis rats, weighing 180-200 g, were obtained from the animal facilities of the Panum Institute in Copenhagen”). I find his name on both papers. Has he anything to say? If Copenhagen researchers find it strange that over 700 rats have been used in a study, why does this Spanish collaborator and co-author not find that strange? Now, hold on! Hold on! On the 8th February 2011 he actually came forward: According to Danish news the Spanish collaborator has asked the editor of “Glia” to retract the article. So it clarifies that aspect. Then February 9th Danish news paper BT got a strong statement from the Spanish researcher saying he is not a second in doubt that she has lied about the rats and he used words such as “not a friendly person”, evil and demanding.
- If Penkowa writes “Female Lewis rats, weighing 180-200 g, were obtained from the animal facilities of the Panum Institute in Copenhagen” in her paper then why was the university satisfied with Penkowa’s explanation that part of the rat study was performed in Spain?
- IMK Almene Fond has supported Penkowa with 5.6 million kroner (around 1 million American dollars). They have demanded (some of) the money paid back. According to Politiken the foundation accepted to pay salaries (that had been paid), but not travel expenses and restaurant bills, bills to laywers and expenses for patent application as well as office funitures, cloths, (office?) rental, hardware and software etc. Now a foundation can put any kind of restriction on the use
of its donated money. But its seems strange that a foundation given such a large grant does not support travel expenses and restaurant bills in connection with research. In standard research grants you usually get money to exactly that: Money to travel to scientific conferences, money to pay for hotel and food while you outside the country to the conferences, money to pay for food in you home country if you have lunch or dinner with foreign scientific visitors or internal scientific meetings within the group. Has the university paid money back to the foundation just to be on good terms with them for prospect of future grants? That might be a good strategy, but is that legal? The question may be answered as our national financial auditor Henrik Otbo now will examine this aspect
- Milena Penkowa received the EliteForsk prize. It is unclear who promoted her. Ralf Hemmingsen ok’ed it even though he must have known about the suspicions against Penkowa. Minister of Science Helge Sander has personal ties to Penkowa. Has there been a direct or indirect pressure from Sander on the people in the nomination committee? Who can investigate a former minister? Surely not the university.
- Penkowa stated in a letter that she had been to a funeral following a traffic accident involving her mother and sister. At the later party at the university her mother showed up. Did any one at the university remember the letter? Did they write it off as a white lie composed by a stressful person?
- Ralf Hemmingsen has apologized for the treatment the three members of the Penkowa’s original 2001-2003 doctoral committee got. However, it still an open question if committee members did a reasonable scientific job. Prominent Nordic neuroscientists Per Andersen and Anders Björklund critized the work of the committee. So where does that leave us? Was the work of the committee not good enough? Did Andersen and Björklund not get enough material or time to evaluate. Is Andersen and Björklund’s criticism unfounded? Should we have an investigation of the investigation of the investigation?
- Committee members said in 2011 they investigated the possibility of submitting Penkowa to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty back in the early 00s but were adviced not to do so as it could be regarded as a breach of confidentiality. Apparently the members reluctance to call in DCSD put Ralf Hemmingsen in a catch-22 and was the reason he called in the investigation with Andersen and Björklund. Is the claim of the committee members really true? Shouldn’t such members be allowed to submited to DCSD?
- Some have critized that Ralf Hemmingsen for not involving Andersen and Björklund in the investigation about the 784 rats. But is that critique fair? The investigation would involve looking through bureaucratic documents (bills, invoices, lab reports) and really not scientific material. Do the critics think that busy widely known neuroscientists Andersen and Björklund should spend their valuable time looking into such things?
- Penkowa’s latest statement from February 12th says the following: “That company has of course existed, like the persons, that at that time was involved and performed the experiment, also existed. The university called the company to get it confirmed. The one, Weekendavisen has called in 2010, is in all likelihood not the same person”. So either the newspaper Weekendavisen and the Spanish lawyer the University of Copenhagen employed for investigating the whereabouts of the existing or nonexisting Spanish company have made a major blunder or Penkowa has now shown a considerable strained relationship with reality.
Care for a bit more science gossip? Here is some in Danish provided by
Nu er jeg så gammel, at jeg husker en sag for omkring 40 år siden, hvor en kvik og dejlig dame blev “båret frem” til en medicinsk doktorgrad af ældre “velgørere” på Københavns Universitet. Bagefter var der nogle unge forskere, som pillede doktorgraden fra hinanden – med en hel del røde ører til følge. De unge læger blev i øvrigt bagefter blacklistet som hævn, så vidt jeg ved. Det kunne man gøre dengang.
Photo: A Mazda MX-5 roadster. A photo by Mauricio Marchant from Wikimedia Commons with license CC-by-sa. Penkowa has a similar car and has been photographed in it a couple of times.
(Typo fix: 14. February 2011)
(Factual correction: 22. August 2011: I was wrong to state that she has not an article in a high-impact journal. The article CNS wound healing is severely depressed in metallothionein I- and II-deficient mice from 1999 published in The Journal of Neuroscience is what I would call a high-impact journal.)